Our Galaxy Might Be Home to 10 Billion Earth-Like Planets


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The Milky Way galaxy is enormous, and we’ve scanned only the tiniest fraction of it in search of planets. We’ve spotted a few thousand of them orbiting distant stars, and now a team of researchers from Penn State University has used that data to estimate the number of Earth-like exoplanets in the entire galaxy — they peg that number between 5 and 10 billion. That’s a lot of places to look for alien life. 

Of course, we can’t know for certain how many Earth-like exoplanets exist, nor can we even say for certain what “Earth-like” means in other solar systems. For the purposes of this study, the team took Earth-like to mean a planet between three-quarters and 1.5 times the size of Earth with an orbital period between 237 and 500 days. 

The researchers started their calculations with data from the Kepler Space Telescope. During its nine-year mission, Kepler identified more than 2,600 exoplanets using the transit method. It watched groups of stars for small dips in light that suggest planets passing in front of them. Kepler demonstrated that many solar systems are similar to our own, but the detection methods favored larger planets orbiting close to a star because they produce more discernible drops in light. To fill in the gaps, the team used data from the ESA’s Gaia spacecraft. 

Kepler spotted thousands of exoplanets during its mission.

Gaia launched in 2013 to create the most accurate 3D map of the galaxy possible. The goal of the project is to determine the locations of more than 1 billion celestial objects. To estimate the number of Earth-like planets, the team used Kepler and Gaia data to create simulated universes and then “observed” those simulated stars like Kepler would have. Since they knew the true number of planets in the simulation, that gave the researchers a sense of how many exoplanets Kepler would have missed in the real world. 

Naturally, there’s a great deal of uncertainty in this estimation, which is why the range is so huge. The best case is 10 billion Earth-like planets in the Milky Way, but that doesn’t mean all of them have life or even a habitable environment — they could have corrosive clouds and crushing atmospheric pressure like Venus and still count as “Earth-like” by the metrics used in the study. The team, therefore, recommends that future missions aiming to find Earth-like planets should plan on seeing them orbiting one in every 33 sun-like stars at minimum. However, it’s possible about half of those stars have at least one Earth-like planet. Instruments like the James Webb Space Telescope might be able to find exoplanets that back up this claim when it launches (we hope) in 2021.

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Scientists Spot Largest Supernova on Record in Distant Galaxy


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A supernova is, by definition, a huge event. We’re talking about exploding stars, after all. Still, some supernovae are bigger than others, and astronomers recently identified what appears to be the largest supernova we’ve ever observed. The event, dubbed SN2016iet, included a long duration, unusual chemical signatures, and more conundrums. The researchers believe this supernova could challenge our models of star death. 

Scientists from the European Space Agency (ESA) made the first sighting of SN2016iet in 2016 using the Gaia satellite. Astronomers from multiple institutions have used the last three years to study the data and make additional observations. In a new paper, scientists point to SN2016iet as the largest supernova ever seen, but it wasn’t easy to get there. SN2016iet was so out of character for a supernova that astronomers initially thought there could be something wrong with the data. 

SN2016iet exploded a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. The team estimates its distance at about one billion light-years in a previously uncatalogued dwarf galaxy. It formed about 54,000 light-years from the center of that galaxy. It was among the largest of stars with a mass of at least 200 suns. As a supergiant star, its life was short, just a few million years. It lost about 85 percent of its mass during the final phase of its life.

Using the MMT Observatory and Magellan Telescopes at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, the team confirmed that SN2016iet looks so unusual in large part due to the material ejected prior to the supernova. The star formed a cocoon of matter around itself, and the supernova blast collided with that material. 

SN2016iet grew in brightness considerably when it finally exploded.

The team says this is an example of a pair-instability supernova, something long-theorized but never observed. In a pair-instability supernova, production of electrons and positrons inside the star temporarily reduces internal pressure, leading to a partial collapse and accelerated runaway nuclear reactions. The resulting explosion completely obliterates the star without leaving a black hole or other solar remnants. This can only happen with very large stars in metal-poor galaxies. 

Scientists will continue observing SN2016iet for years to come. Most supernovas fade away in a few months, but this one should be visible much longer, providing an unprecedented opportunity to better understand solar processes.

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Astronomers Spot Mysterious Flash From Our Galaxy’s Supermassive Black Hole


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You don’t usually think of a supermassive black hole as something that can go unnoticed, but many of these interstellar monsters are quite placid. For instance, Sagittarius A* (pronounced “Sagittarius A Star”) in the center of our own Milky Way galaxy. It’s usually very dim, but astronomers recently saw Sagittarius A* flare up — in fact, it just got brighter than we’ve ever seen it. 

Astronomers have detected many active galactic nuclei like quasars around the universe, but Sagittarius A* is on the quiet side despite being four million times more massive than the sun. It’s a bright X-ray radio source due to the heating of matter in the black hole’s accretion disk, but it’s not active enough to be bright across most of the electromagnetic spectrum.

In May of this year, UCLA’s Tuan Do spotted an unusual pulse from Sagittarius A*. That was so unexpected that at first, he believed the flash came from a star in the same part of the sky called S0-2. However, it became apparent over the course of about two and a half hours that the source was variable and was, in fact, Sagittarius A*. At its peak, Sagittarius A* was 75 times brighter than usual in infrared. 

Scientists have been watching Sagittarius A* for decades, but no one was sure what to make of it for much of that time; it was just a strong X-ray source deep in the Milky Way. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, studies of objects near Sagittarius A* demonstrated it had a strong gravity explained best by a supermassive black hole. Today, the evidence for Sagittarius A* as the gravitational center of the Milky Way is quite solid. It’s under constant observation with instruments like the WM Keck Observatory in Hawaii used by the UCLA team. 

Do and his team have speculated on several causes for the spike in brightness. Sagittarius A* itself would not emit radiation detectable on Earth, but objects near it being torn to shreds by gravitational shear would. It’s possible a large volume of matter fell into the black hole’s gravity well, and that caused the flash. The team points to two possibilities. First, the aforementioned S0-2, which is in a long 16-year orbit of Sagittarius A*. It made its closest approach yet last year, coming within 17 light hours of the event horizon. A part of the star may have been pulled away during that pass. There’s also a gas cloud called G2 that swing around Sagittarius A* in 2014. There were no cosmic fireworks at the time, but we could be seeing a delayed reaction.

More observatories should have data from the same time period, so they could shed light on the nature of the flash in the coming months.

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TESS Finds Potentially Habitable Super-Earth Just 31 Light Years Away


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NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) has only been scanning the skies for about a year, but it has already identified several new candidate exoplanets. As astronomers were working to confirm one recent sighting, they happened upon something unexpected. That solar system, known as GJ 357, hosts not one but three exoplanets. What’s more, one of those planets is a super-Earth in the habitable region of the star. 

TESS uses the transit method to spot exoplanets with its array of cameras, similar to the dearly departed Kepler satellite. It can scan multiple stars at the same time, watching for the telltale dips in light that indicate an exoplanet has passed in front of its host star. That’s what TESS saw in GJ 357, which is only 31 light-years away. To confirm the existence of the exoplanet dubbed GJ 357 b, astronomers used ground-based telescopes to measure the star’s radial velocity. This alternative method looks for tiny changes in light caused when a star “wobbles” in response to the gravity of orbiting planets. 

The team confirmed GJ 357 b, but they also found two more exoplanets now known as GJ 357 c and GJ 357 d. GJ 357 is a small M-type dwarf star, which is 40 percent cooler than the sun. GJ 357 b orbits the star in just 3.9 days and is 22 percent larger than Earth. The surface equilibrium temperature (a measure of solar radiation only) is 490 degrees Fahrenheit (254 degrees Celsius), ruling out life as we know it. GJ 357 c is a bit farther out, but still too hot for life. It’s 3.4 times as massive as Earth and orbits ever 9.1 Earth days. The temperature here is 260 degrees F (127 degrees C).

Astronomers are most interested in GJ 357 d, which sits near the outer edge of the system’s habitable zone with a 55.7-day orbit around the star. It’s 6.1 times more massive than Earth, meaning it could be rocky or gaseous. If it’s a rocky planet, it would be about twice as large as Earth. 

According to the team, GJ 357 d has an equilibrium temperature of  -64 degrees F (-53 degrees C). That sounds too low to be even potentially habitable, but this is only a measure of solar radiation. Earth’s equilibrium temperature is -1 degree F (-18 degrees C), but the atmosphere increases the surface temperature. GJ 357 d gets about as much solar radiation as Mars, and a sufficiently dense atmosphere could allow liquid water to flow on its surface. Astronomers around the world plan to take a closer look at this nearby super-Earth over the coming years.

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Scientists Create Miniature Sun in Wisconsin


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The sun is easy to spot in the sky, and it’s not very far away in astronomical terms. So, scientists have spent a great deal of time studying our local life-giving star. However, the sun is also a nuclear inferno that will eradicate any people and most robots that get too close. To study the star up close, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison built a miniature sun. They call it the Big Red Ball (BRB), and it could help us understand some fundamental solar processes. 

Like most main sequence stars, the sun is a giant ball of hydrogen massive enough to sustain a nuclear fusion reaction. The hydrogen fuses into helium, and helium eventually fuses into heavier elements as stars exhaust their fuel. The sun still has plenty of life left, so it’s mostly hydrogen with about one-quarter helium. 

The BRB uses helium to create analogous conditions to those on the sun, but without all that pesky nuclear fusion. As experiments have shown, it’s extremely difficult to maintain nuclear fusion on Earth. The BRB is a hollow sphere almost ten feet (three meters) in diameter. The team filled that space with helium gas (which again is a major component of the sun) and ionized it with microwave heating to form a sun-like plasma. Powerful magnets confine the plasma, and an electrical current causes the miniature sun to spin a bit like the real one. 

The team has used the BRB to simulate a solar structure called a Parker spiral, which forms as a consequence of magnetic field line shifts on the sun. That suggests the BRB model is a good one. The researchers also noted fast-moving plasma within magnetically weak areas of the mini-sun. These are similar to the small eruptions on the sun that fuel the solar wind, making this the first instance of simulated solar wind in the lab. 

Earth-based experiments like the BRB can help scientists better understand the data collected by solar missions like the Parker probe. By recreating sun-like conditions in the lab like this, we can begin to understand some of the sun’s mysteries. For example, no one knows what causes the solar wind to accelerate away from the sun. The solar wind can affect satellites and ground systems here on Earth, and it may one day be a viable way of traveling around the solar system with solar sails.

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